Monday, July 21, 2014

Reading List

It's best to devour books several at a time, buffet style. Satiety is unattainable, so you might as well heap your plate with plenty of fiction, poetry, poli-sci, religion, astronomy, psyche, philosophy or whatever you find most delectable and plunge into feasting. A bite of this, a taste of that, and sometimes a text will just be so delicious you shove all the others aside in its favor. Here's my own personal spread at the moment:

Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms
Carl Sandburg - Chicago Poems
Thich Nhat Hanh - The Miracle of Mindfulness
Robert Louis Stevenson - Treasure Island (for the kids)
Arthur O. Lovejoy - The Great Chain of Being

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Farewell love and all thy laws forever - Sir Thomas Wyatt

Farewell love and all thy laws forever;
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
To perfect wealth, my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell; go trouble younger hearts
And in me claim no more authority.
With idle youth go use thy property
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts,
For hitherto though I have lost all my time,
Me lusteth no lenger rotten boughs to climb.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

One Drop

Drop Danny off. Make them some coffee. Feed the cats.  Go home, get back in bed.

That was my list for yesterday morning, but as I drove away from my brother's house I had a whim. "Why not go to Asheville today?" So I did.

I hit 25 north at about 11 AM, a notebook, a pen, and a pack of cigarettes for companions. I sang loudly to several old CDs I had rattling around in the car and felt good. I felt freedom and well-being and graditude and true purpose and joy for the moment. Rain fell. I knew I had an umbrella in the trunk, so if a true deluge came I could utilize it as I strolled ways unknown to me.

With time to kill, I explored the city's streets and its record stores and art galleries and used book shops. The smell of old books is like no other. It's a musty, old smell, an organic smell, a living smell. The pages contain much more than the words printed on them. Much like thrifted clothing, there's a secret history within every used book - the sweat and coffee stains and tears of previous owners, the smells of their homes and things they cooked there, the psychic information transmitted from the readers to the books as they lived through whatever their lives were at the moment when that book enriched them. Buying a book second hand, you don't get these stories delivered straight to your waking consciousness, but it comes to you unconsciously when you smell or touch them. As you leaf through the pages your soul expands, connecting you to the lives of those who previously held, read, loved or hated or merely liked or disliked that book.

On the streets of an unfamiliar city I feel in my element. In Pack Square before the Vance Memorial Obelisk stood two young men with anti-war signs - Sean and Shane. I introduced myself, chatted with them a moment and asked where I could get a good cup of coffee. I was pointed in the direction of a cafe in proximity.

"Is there a demonstration today? Got more people coming?"
"There's usually more people here," said Shane, "but it's an even more powerful statement to just have two guys standing here in the rain." I admired their fortitude and good cheer.

I sat with my coffee and air dried and thought about where I was, what I was doing, how it made me feel. It was a sense of freedom that I've only ever experienced when alone and on the road. It was intoxicating. Freedom is the most magnetic, the most healthful, the most joy-bringing, and possibly the most dangerous of intoxicants. One drop from its cup and you are bound to it forever. When you've tasted freedom, you will never be free from a constant seeking after it.

The sky stayed gray all day. I meandered aimlessly in search of drinks. Bars were everywhere, but what I wanted was a small hole in the wall with atmosphere. Not a show-up-on-a-moped-drink-till-you-pass-out-and-sleep-in-the-sawdust-underneath-the-bar kind of dive, mind you, but something a bit out of the way. I took an unexpected turn onto Broadway and began climbing a hill when a huge, framed poster of Bob Dobbs peered out from just such a place. I knew I'd found my bar - Tiger Mountain Thirst Parlour.

The place was dead, which was unfortunate, but the bartender was sweet and cool and there was some good rock and roll I'd never heard on the turntable. I ordered a whiskey and a beer and chatted with her. I forgot to ask her name. A few people came in, ordered drinks. A dude in a flat-brimmed baseball cap sat near me and set a book on the bar. He explained to the bartender that it was his 34th birthday.

"Got any Jameson?"
"No, I'm sorry we're out right now." He was taken aback.
"Alright. Got any Crown? I'll have Crown on the rocks."

"What're ya readin' there?" I asked.
"It's a book about the Sicilian mafia. I'm big into anything about the mafia." He talked about the differences between the mobs here and over there and how he got interested in the subject because his Dad was a forensic psychologist and his mom got him interested in reading really young. He told me all about Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski and how he'd once tied someone up in a cave and let a bunch of rats eat him alive.

I finished my drinks and leaned out into the dusk with no plan. The darkling sky tried hard to crush my mood but failed and I climbed Broadway with warmth and unknown purpose and that feeling of freedom. The whole night was ahead of me. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Seven on Twelve" - Vignette

“Seven on Twelve.”

I say the simple code into my register’s microphone for the third time. There are at least a dozen people in line, most of them with full carts, waiting for my manager to come and give me the override. Three of them have children in tow. Snot-nosed children. Haven’t these people ever heard of tissues?

I haven’t seen her in months. Even with the job, I still get out just as much as ever on the hunt. Much of the time I had previously alotted to sleep was now taken over by my work. My real work. The part-time job alleviated the relentless hell I catch from Grandma for a week or so. But she was soon at it again, since my wages hardly made a dent in our household expenses.

At least I like my manager. Sort of. He’s middle-aged and paunchy, balding. Wire-framed glasses, mustache. He’s always stressed out with the responsibility of running our shift, but usually he’s even tempered and kind. Unless there’s a shortage anywhere. My till for instance.

“You’re 37 short.”
“Am I?”
“Well, shit. How can that be?”
“I don’t appreciate your language or the hostility of your tone. I’m docking you.”

He was usually nice, but it was obvious, to me anyway, that his manners were the result of concentrated effort. He never talked to any of us about his personal life, but you could tell he had some serious shit going on. His body language said everything. He was a defeated sort of little man, frustrated and sour, the type that once had some grandiose ambitions, but through a series of fatal mistakes, saw none of them come to pass. He’d been through lots of therapy in the hopes of salvaging some semblence of a decent life from the landfill that was his existence. Abuse? Addiction? Perversion? One could only guess what brought him to this place. He had the air of someone who fancied himself  a benevolent ruler – superior but magnanimous – and it gave his presence some unwitting humor he’d not have had otherwise and sorely needed. Of course this was all speculation on my part. 

Tonight his nerves are thin. One of the few things I can do to alleviate the boredom at this job is to imagine whatever in his personal life has caused him to be so out of sorts at work. Maybe he’s got a boil in the fold where his cheek meets the back of his thigh. Maybe his wife has given him the final ultimatum on the length of his mustache, which covers his upper lip and makes him look like some sad, underfed walrus. Maybe he’s been to the doctor and found out he’s got a hundred more years to live.

“Cleanup on aisle 97,” he says to me robotically. “Someone spilled a whole box of detergent.”

I grab the mop and bucket and begin the long walk to the other end of the building. I’ll clean some things. Spilled detergent’s not a problem. But I draw the line at bathrooms. Never again. Not after the blowout I had to take care of in the women’s bathroom in my first week.

I finally arrive at my destination to find that some fucking old lady has slipped and fallen in the detergent. Someone had placed a warning sign there to keep people away from the site of the spill, but who knows if they put it there before or after the old bag skated? I choke back a chuckle as I look at her there, helpless, arms and legs flailing in slow motion like one of the huge brown cockroaches we get in our apartment when it gets turned over. I wish that it was Grandma there. But I think better of it, because I know if it were her down there in that sudsy mess I’d not be able to control my enjoyment.


Somehow I'm getting way too many of these sweet, delicious berries this summer. Way more than last year anyway. Sure, tomatoes must be some of the easiest fruits for someone to grow at home, hence their popularity. But as a novice gardener, it feels like a triumph to be able to produce more than I need. The plants just keep cranking 'em out. Maybe I'll just whip 'em all into some spaghetti sauce or something. Or maybe I'll learn how to can them, which is a really useful skill.

Other than the tomatoes, this year all we've got growing so far are a couple of green bean plants my 3 year old boy started from seeds at his daycare and some gourds that grew spontaneously thanks to their seeds making their way into my compost last summer. Those plants also appear happy, but I doubt I'll post any pictures of the actual garden, as it isn't exactly what I'd call picturesque at the moment.

Anyone want any tomatoes?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Any Old Hairy Milk-Guzzler Has Feels

One of the first exercises in Thich Nhat Hanh's mindfulness meditation discipline is to focus on the breath. "Inhale. Exhale." The practitioner becomes aware of inspiration and expiration, focusing on these and letting thoughts and feelings drift by without dwelling on them. The exercise is particularly useful in calming oneself, especially if your nerves are frayed and ragged.

Further reading in Buddhist meditation techniques brought me to anger management practice. The author, whose name escapes me at the moment, considers anger to be a delusion, an error. When the meditator realizes this, then anger slips away, and they are free from it. I admit it. I'm not highly evolved enough for this approach to do me any good.

Emotions are a normal response to stimuli in a mammalian brain. That is to say, any old hairy milk-guzzler has feels. Real events and my own responses to those events have caused my brain to be drunk on its own personalized emotional cocktail. It's much more useful to allow yourself to actually feel these things - all the sadness, the confusion, the anger. What I don't allow myself to do is worry.

Dealing directly with emotions, understanding their causes and having access to techniques for healthy expression of them gives you power over them that avoidance and denial and repression robs you of. You can get control of them, you can get control of your life. You don't have to allow your feelings to control you.

From the Christian perspective, forgiveness is advocated. Once again, my current mindset deviates from the teaching. I don't want to forgive, at least, not now. Folks could judge me for this, but I don't care what anyone says about it or how they treat me for it, for I won't forgive until I'm good and ready, if ever. I'm not yet strong enough to forgive. Not yet.

Maybe it's a sin to choose not to forgive those who've trespassed against me. It's not that I don't care. But God hasn't put it in my heart to forgive. Not yet. What is in my heart at this moment is a feeling of building, of growth, of increase, of strengthening, of renewal, of awakening, of rebirth. I'm a child of God just opening his eyes. I can't even crawl yet. I'm not strong enough to perform so godly an act as true, pure, deep, heartfelt forgiveness and have it be in any way meaningful.

Jesus forgave everybody. But he's God. I can strive to imitate Christ, to seek after that ideal of righteousness, but I'm just a man. I've sinned, made mistakes. I can strive not to do so, but I will sin again. Someday, perhaps, I will be ready to forgive. But not now.

Besides, "to everything there is a season." Now begins my season of anger, my season of burning, my season of baptism by fire, my season of rain to hydrate the droughts, a season both vernal and green as well as a golden summer, a season of feverish activity, of heat and passion, a season to sew the fields but not yet to harvest. Who knows what the future will hold for me - there will certainly be good as well as bad times ahead. But now is an exciting time. 

Hangrily Kicking the Shit Out of the Old Me

I'm deeply angry. And I'm ravenously hungry. Seems like there's a correlation here. You could say I'm hangry.

What to do with all that rage and appetite? Increase in size, of course! I've always been scrawny, but that doesn't hafta be permanent. I've been eating tons of food, and I've gained about 5 pounds in the last week.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a couch potato and I'm not interested in becoming overweight. So I've started a new technique where I use the energy that my repressed rage gives me to work out really hard. It feels great! I start off not angry at all. But then I picture people who've done me wrong and stand in front of the mirror with weights in my hands. I bring the anger to the surface and exhale it with every repetition, every pushup and chinup, every kick and punch. I think angry thoughts. When I'm done, I don't feel angry any more, but I do feel very worked out. When I'm done I feel awesome, relaxed, strong, powerful.

I don't want to actually punch anybody out, but I want to feel like I could. I want to feel like I could knock somebody's teeth out if I needed to. My goal is to put on 30 lbs by the end of the year, to get my weight to around 170 lbs, which would be ideal for my height. Plus, I'm focusing on foods and exercises which increase testosterone production and decrease estrogens in the body. Hell yes!

I know I'll achieve it because the anger is always there, it's not going away any time soon, it has deep roots, and I've figured out how to channel it this way. I might as well use it. It gives me a powerful feeling, a fierce feeling, fearsome, ferocious, like I could kick someone's ass, or like I could at least kick the shit out of the old me, the me who complained about his life and didn't do a damn thing about it, who held his anger in rather than using the energy to be productive, the old me who wasn't spirited enough to get all that he wanted out of life. It's possible to harness this energy and use it for self improvement rather than to let it control me, so that's what I'm doing.

Already I feel calmer, less abrasive. I feel as though I am becoming more and more prepared to deal with the people who make me angry in my life, not to just bury my own needs and wants under those of others who have taken advantage of me.

Within a year, this area of my life will be very different. I believe it. I know it. I'm training. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

No More Old Songs

So besides giving up the electric guitar until further notice, I'm really excited about this: I won't be playing any songs that I've written up 'til now for the foreseeable future, at all either in the privacy of my own home or for any audience. I know, it's extreme. But hell, I like things to be extreme. When it's a creative choice, an extreme gives me a feeling of power, of control, excitement, liberation.

It forces me to write new songs and to explore the territory that I'm interested in rather than continuing to write material that is of a piece with the old stuff. I want to focus my energy more on the writing aspect than the jamming. For instance, I've got a tune that I'm working on that is a character sketch. It could be a song or a short story. Or it could be both. I can write pages and pages about the character and what she's gone through and where she is now, and then decide what to include and what to hold back. Hemingway used to talk about his "iceberg" theory, in which the writer knows much more than he says. This perspective is quite useful no matter the genre that you work in for it enriches the work with depth it would otherwise not have. The whole point is just to get pen on paper, to let the ideas flow out without any sort of inhibitive editing. You can always go back later and edit, excise the cliches and redundancies, the mistakes, the idiocies. But to get anywhere you've got to tap into the river of song and let the waters flow.

Who knows when I'll have new songs? I've set the bar much higher, hoping to achieve a much higher level in terms of compositional quality on both the literary and musical plains. The ideas and feelings I want to communicate are important enough to me that it warrants a lot of hard work on developing new skills in both these areas. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Scatter My Ashes Over the Mississippi River

"Shit! Shit shit shit" I yelled. My palm struck the steering wheel several times. I was having a major rage attack. Daylight was almost gone, and Alabama roads apparently don't have signs or landmarks of any kind to tell you you're going in the right direction.

The map said to follow 78 (which doubles as Interstate 22) all the way from Memphis to Birmingham, then take I20 to Atlanta. But what the map didn't say was that I22 abruptly ends because of "construction." And the GPS on my "smart" phone hadn't gotten the memo, either, since it was telling me to follow 22 for 10 more miles. Peering down out the driver's side window at the road below, I noted that grass had overtaken much of it. Repair of I22 wasn't high on the list of priorities, I guess. I rode around in the dark for probably an hour before I found my way back to 78, furious, ready to leave this cursed state behind me. Besides, the stars Alabama's famous for weren't out tonight anyway thanks to a thick cloud cover.

I didn't know why I felt compelled to go on a road trip, but somehow I knew it was the right thing to do. I wanted to go vaguely west, and I figured that I'd probably head northwest, to Knoxville Tennessee. I'd rest there and figure out a destination.

The Historic Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, TN

I spent several hours in Knoxville, walking around, talking to folks, taking pictures. I chatted with Bill Page, a storied local street musician, who tipped me off on some places I could see interesting street art, including an alleyway that was pretty well covered.

Bill Page

I had an italian hero sandwich and looked at the map. "Should I go to Memphis or head north into Kentucky? I'd like to visit as many states as possible in the short amount of time I have," I thought to myself as I traced possible routes and sipped from a huge glass of sweet tea.

"Memphis is about 7 hours from here," said the waitress as she took my finished plate away. The amount of driving seemed daunting. But something told me that was where I should go anyway. I'd zip right past Nashville and head there.

As I drove it occurred to me that the Mississippi River is powerfully, archetypically American. Its waters flood the surrounding lands, facilitating agriculture in one of the most fertile areas in the world. It has played a key role throughout the history of this country and is one of the largest and longest rivers in the world. It seemed as though my purpose had become clear: I was on a pilgrimage to an important place, an historic place, a sacred place. I was to dip myself in the Mississippi; its muddy waters would baptize me. I realized I had had a purpose all along.

A wave of well-being flooded my consciousness as I took I40 over the River and into Arkansas. I had no purpose or destination there, but since it is just across the line from Memphis, I figured I'd put my feet on the ground in that state for the first time just to say I had. By the time I'd get home, I'd have visited or driven through six Deep South states - North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The July Memphis sun fell hard and quick like a flail. I walked around Beale street, just to see what all the fuss was about, and had a beer and a plate of ribs, BBQ beans, and corn on the cob to keep me going. The streets were dirty and funky and bustled with other tourists. Street musicians played the blues. More music blared from the bars. I loved the place.

But the River called. I headed down Beale to Riverside Drive, where a public park was. From there you could see Pyramid Arena, former home of the University of Memphis' men's basketball team and later, the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. It's an enormous mirrored structure, abandoned for nearly a decade. It gleamed blindingly, angry in its lonesomeness. I turned from it and strolled down to the bank from the park. There was a foul piscine smell. A big dead fish floated there on its side, its eye peering up at me blankly. I thought it best to walk a ways down from that malodorous scene and find another site for my private rite.

Seven times I brought the dirty water to my forehead and prayed. I rose from my squatting position by the water and strode back up the bank, and up Beale Street once more. What all this accomplished, if anything, I neither know nor care, for when the spirit compells me, I move. My mission complete, I was free to just hang out there and drive back to South Carolina when the time came.

Beale Street, Memphis TN July 6, 2014

Now, about that drive. . .

Friday, July 4, 2014

Electric Guitar Hiatus

I've traded some guitar gear lately, saved some money and invested a bit and now I've got a really satisfying sound. So what to do now? Give up playing electric guitar for an extended period, obviously.

OK, so this doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, I know. The electric guitar has been like a second voice for me. But I have no band at the moment, no context to blast out the chords and the clusters, the fuzz and the feedback that I love producing. And the thing is, I'm a writer, not a jammer. I'm a writer, not a musician. I mean, I'll always make music, but I'm not a consumate musician like a lot of people I know. For me, the art is in the composition and a physical, full body, full mind, full soul kind of performance. It's not about what my fingers can do, or trying to impress anybody with my long hours of practice. It's about communicating thoughts, themes, and feelings with everything I have - my writing skill and intensity, my intelligence and soul. When I play, sometimes it's tight, sometimes it's uplifting. Sometimes it's sloppy to an extreme, sometimes it's a bummer. But it is always genuine. It is always real. It is always authentic.

I'm putting the electric guitars, amps, and effects pedals away for an indefinite period because I want to focus on writing better material. I want my stories and songs to be well-crafted on a literary level. When I was younger I trained so hard in musical composition that it's a piece of cake to come up with whatever sort of music I need to illustrate the words. I've written some stories and some poems and essays and about 400 songs. But I haven't yet fully found my true voice as a writer of prose, a writer of verse. I'm focusing on that and I don't want to be distracted by having anything else on my creative plate. Soon I'll head back to school and that'll demand a lot of my intellectual energy, so shelving the electric guitar makes sense. I'm writing every day, focusing my thoughts into short bits of prose that can be expanded to vignettes, stories, poems, or songs.

Who knows when I'll come back to the electric guitar? Last time I took a break from it, I hardly touched one for about 5 years. One thing's for sure: when I do pick it up again, I'll have lots of new ideas for what I want to do with it.